A reformist candidate and two hard-liners have dropped out of Iran's presidential election on the last day of the campaign -- leaving just four candidates in a June 18 vote widely expected to be won by ultraconservative judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi.
Mohsen Mehralizadeh, a former vice president under reformist President Mohammad Khatami, withdrew from the race on June 16, apparently to boost the chances of former Central Bank chief Abdolnasser Hemmati, who has been running as a moderate and as a stand-in for outgoing President Hassan Rohani.
The hard-line candidates Alireza Zakani and Saeed Jalili also announced their departure, throwing their support behind Raisi, a candidate seen as being close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei .
Mehralizadeh and Hemmati were the only two candidates considered reformists permitted to run in the election to replace Rohani, who has served the maximum two consecutive terms.
With Raisi's victory seen as a foregone conclusion, Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli acknowledged on June 16 that turnout among Iran's nearly 60 million eligible voters "may be lower compared to previous elections."
"A weakness in competition is one reason, and the coronavirus situation another," Fazli told journalists.
In an attempt to lure the disillusioned public back to the polls, Khamenei urged voters to come out in droves to elect "a powerful president," lashing out against Iran's "enemies" for discouraging people from voting.
Opinion polls suggest voter turnout could be less than the record low of 57 percent registered in parliamentary elections in February 2020. Thousands of candidates, many of them moderates and reformists, were barred from running in that election.
The presidential election comes amid talks between Tehran and world powers aimed at reviving a landmark 2015 nuclear deal, and amid popular discontent about a severe economic and social crisis in the sanctions-hit country. The coronavirus pandemic also appears to be contributing to voter apathy.
Candidates were expected to quit the race on June 16 after more than 200 lawmakers in Iran's parliament, which is dominated by hard-liners, urged remaining hard-liners candidates to withdraw and back Raisi.
Zakani, who heads the parliament's research center, became known as a lawmaker for his outspoken opposition to Tehran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
He also has served since the late 1990s as the head of Iran's volunteer Basij paramilitary militia -- an organization established by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979 that is affiliated with the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
Jalili served as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council for five years from 2007. He was appointed in 2013 as a member to the powerful Expediency Council -- a body that advises Khamenei.